This is a sports story, but it’s also a love story. So, to begin, here is some relationship advice from contemporary Americana songwriter Dan Bern: “When I tell you that I love you/Don’t test my love/Just accept my love/Don’t test my love … ’Cause maybe I don’t love you all that much.”
Does Toronto FC, Canada’s first professional soccer team, have a theme song in 2011? Bern’s ballad, “Jerusalem,” might be all the team deserves. Sure, when TFC launched in 2007, “Seven Nation Army” and “Ole!” rang contagiously throughout the bleachers of Toronto’s BMO Field. These days, the risers are still raucous, but the vibe is decidedly less celebratory. TFC has managed the seemingly impossible in five short years, which is to severely test its fans’ unshakeable devotion.
When the team joined Major League Soccer in ’07, it filled a void of pent-up, unfocused football passion for Canadians accustomed to cheering on teams from other countries. Really, how much sense did it make for a kid from Lethbridge to be rooting for Barcelona? The inaugural season saw Toronto FC sell out every available ticket, and its fans became renowned as the league’s most passionate.
How passionate? Consider that when Danny Dichio, a 6’4″ bald behemoth with a cartoon English accent, scored TFC’s first-ever goal in the 24th minute of the team’s first-ever home game, the fans created a song in his honour (“Oh, Danny Dich-i-o”), and went on to sing it at the 24th minute of every game. Toronto FC was an admittedly terrible team that first year but for the fans it was their terrible team, and that was enough.
After three seasons of consistently poor performance, goodwill was no longer enough. The team never made the playoffs. Top draft picks were traded for very little. Head coaches came and went. Nothing changed. The novelty of having a hometown team wore off, and fans that had never demanded success wanted to see at least a little progress.
The first real body-blow came at the end of 2009: TFC needed a single point in its final game of the season — against the New York Red Bulls, the league’s worst team — to qualify, finally, for the playoffs. TFC was shellacked 5-0, and loveable became laughable.
A fresh start was promised for 2010. The team was gutted and rebuilt under its fourth coach, Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevic. Despite some early promise, TFC failed to make the playoffs. Again.
All of this might have still been fine if ticket prices had remained stable. TFC was lousy entertainment, but it was affordable lousy entertainment (the cheapest first-season seats went for about $20). Halfway through 2010, management announced renewal rates that approximately doubled those of 2007. Outraged fans voted without their wallets, and there was brief period where it looked like the season would not sell out, for the first time ever. (MLSE, Toronto FC’s owner, ended up quietly extending the renewal window.)
Gearing up for the current season, TFC announced a fresh start (its fifth, if you’re still counting). Soccersolutions, the consulting firm of German legend Jurgen Klinsmann, was brought on board. The team was again gutted and rebuilt. Another new coach was hired. Empirical evidence aside, fans dared to believe that maybe this time, things would be different.
Saturday, March 19, Toronto FC lost its first game of this season, 4-2, to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps. For those looking to jump off the bus, here was the moment: One game deep and a sense of big-picture defeat was already in the air. With Montreal and Ottawa franchises on the horizon, a formerly nation-wide spirit is being quickly regionalized. Even with only two Canadian teams in Major League Soccer, it’s easy to write off Toronto as having found another sport in which to be a national laughingstock for years to come.
For general bandwagoneers of any sports team (for example, several thousand Blue Jays fans), incompetence, lack of vision and general crappiness leads to apathy. For true fans, though, it leads to anger, frustration and a sense of betrayal — which is still passion, still just a beaten-up form of love.
Go figure: The passion of TFC followers remained oddly uncrushed over the last week. We’re telling ourselves that fresh start number five feels fresh enough. And we’re ordering another pre-game pint, please. And we’re still reporting to BMO Field to cheer at kick-off tomorrow. And we will probably be OK should our team happen to lose. Again.
If that’s not love, then TFC doesn’t know what is.
TFC’s next game is v. Portland Timbers, Mar. 26.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s next game is @ Philadelphia Union, Mar. 26.
Photo by Bob Frid, courtesy of Vancouver Whitecaps FC.